How to Automate Business Processes: 3 Key Steps

What are the top ways to automate business processes? Which business process should you automate first? Consider this advice on examples of business process automation (BPA) and how to use it.

Getting started with business process automation (BPA), a key part of any organization’s business process management strategy, begins with creating a solid plan. Before you start bringing together your people, bots, data, and systems to automate manual tasks in a workflow or workflows, you need a plan that can answer these three questions:

  • Are you using the right automation technology for the right use case, with humans assigned the jobs they’re best suited to?

  • Do your automation technologies complement and augment one another?

  • Do you know how the newly automated process is working and where it can be improved? 

To help you answer these questions, let’s explore three key steps to business process automation. We’ll also share advice on choosing your first BPA project, look at some common business process automation examples, and examine potential benefits.

3 key phases of business process automation.

Whether you’re ready to set up your first RPA bot or still getting a handle on a broader process automation strategy, it’s helpful to understand the three key phases of automation:

1. Plan your process updates.

In this phase, you start by mapping out the relationships between your people, processes, data, and technology. You’ll need a digital workspace where you can map out your workflow as it exists today. Sometimes just the act of process modeling will help identify improvements you can make. You may also already have an idea of which areas to optimize based on user interviews or requests. 

Once you understand how your process works today and where you can automate tasks, you can start building your new workflow. Ideally, you’ll have the ability to build functionality right from your process map. An enterprise low-code platform enables you to do both, as well as insert automation directly into your process.

[ Learn how to work through these three phases with our guide: A 3-Pronged Approach to a Better Workflow. ]

2. Fit the tool to the job.

This is where all of that insight and planning from the initial phase comes together so you can apply the right technologies to the right tasks. You can’t just stick a bot on everything. You have to know when to allow technology to take over and when human employees should have the responsibility. When you do decide to automate, you’ll want to apply the right automation tool, choosing between things like artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML), robotic process automation (RPA), and intelligent document processing (IDP). If you work with a low-code platform, you’ll have all these elements in one place as you design processes for your organization.

3. Optimize your new process.

Once you’ve launched your newly redesigned and automated process, it’s time to evaluate how it’s working. It’s not an improvement if you’ve only introduced new roadblocks! Wait until you have enough process data to analyze—this may take as little as a week for high-volume processes, or up to a few months for lower volume work. Then, you can analyze the data and identify any process areas that could be improved further. 

In the past, many companies have done this legwork manually. But instead of taking a manual approach, which involves collecting data, tracing process steps, and conducting interviews, look for a platform that includes process mining. Process mining is just what it sounds like: a technology that mines event logs from your processes to reconstruct what your process looks like visually. Then, you can quickly see where you can optimize.

[ Want to learn more about process mining? Get the eBook: Process Mining Guide -  Optimize Your Business Processes. ]

Now that you understand these steps, you’re ready to select your first digital process automation project.

Which business process should you automate first?

Your ideal first automation project will be a high-impact, low-complexity process. Look at impact first. What impact will optimizing this process have on your business, whether it’s growing revenue, cost cutting, or improving customer experience? Next, consider complexity. How many process steps, human participants, and integration points does this process have? Look for a process you can automate quickly to make an impact.

The other benefit to choosing a quick-win project like this is that you’ll have an early success you can promote. And an Automation Center of Excellence helps you evangelize your success across your organization. This makes it easier to get company buy-in for continuing your process automation projects, taking on more complex processes, and expanding to other areas of the business.

What is an example of business process automation?

Organizations can use business process automation to streamline workflows across every area of the business. (Check out these 200 automation use case ideas). Let’s take one finance example and break it down: processing invoices. Before automation, finance employees might have to comb through an email inbox, manually download and review invoices, then move all that data into a spreadsheet. Then, someone else needs to double check to make sure the spreadsheet is error free.

With automation, AI-assisted IDP can scan the document, store it digitally, make it available to anyone who needs access, and route data to another system,  automatically flagging exceptions for review by a human. Enterprise financial leaders can use IDP to automate repetitive, manual tasks to reduce errors and speed up processes. Here’s a helpful data point: Gartner has found that the average amount of avoidable rework in accounting departments can take up to 30% of a full-time employee’s overall work time. 

What are some other examples of how to apply business process automation? 

  • Answer frequently asked customer service questions.

  • Process order forms and vendor contracts.

  • Onboard and offboard employees. 

  • Migrate data from one system to another.

  • Handle insurance claims and fraud case management.

  • Manage inventory.

Why automate business processes?

Saving time and reducing errors are just two of many reasons to automate processes. What are some other common benefits of BPA?

  • Increase process efficiency: Automation makes your processes better and faster, which pays off exponentially.

  • Repurpose employee time: Rather than having employees focus on repetitive tasks, business process automation empowers the team to focus on higher-level cognitive work.

  • Reduce costs: Although adopting new automation technologies is an investment, you’ll continually eliminate inefficiencies and increase your speed by using them—therefore minimizing costs. 

  • Improve accuracy: Automation technologies prevent human error and thus save employees the headache of having to painstakingly scan for errors themselves.

  • Streamline customer service: Your customers benefit because automation makes your company easier to do business with, letting them see value faster and increasing their satisfaction.

  • Increase compliance: Process automation helps you stay compliant with your target processes and therefore with any regulations you need to adhere to. A streamlined process reduces the incidence of human error and provides a digital, fully auditable record of activities that holds up to regulatory scrutiny. 

  • Reduce risk: Automated processes have a lower incidence of errors, helping your organization reduce risk. You can continuously monitor your automated processes to safeguard against fraud.

[ Which emerging automation trends deserve your attention now? Get the Gartner Hyperautomation 2022 Trends Report. ]